Because this article requires some understanding of grammar, I’ve included links to sites that explain grammatical terms in more detail.
Who or whom? These pesky pronouns have bedeviled writers for centuries. How do you know which one to use? Luckily, there are a few simple rules (and a nifty trick) that make it easier to figure out.
Who or whom simple rules
Since who and whom are pronouns, they take the place of other nouns in a sentence.
- Who refers to the subject of the sentence.
- Whom refers to the object of a verb.
- Whom also refers to the object of a preposition.
We make these substitutions almost unconsciously with other pronouns: I/me, he/him, she/her, they/them. You can think of who and whom in the same way.
- I/me = who/whom
- he/him = who/whom
- she/her = who/whom
- they/them = who/whom
Subject of the sentence
Let’s look at an example.
- Marie is driving the car to the mall.
Your mother, unfortunately, doesn’t know this. Should “who” or “whom” replace “Marie” in the question your mother asks you?
- Who/whom is driving the car to the mall?
If you’re a grammarian, you look at the sentence and say, “Marie is the object of the sentence.”
But if your grammar is a bit rusty, you can use our nifty trick: Replace “Marie” with “she” and “her” to see which one sounds right.
- She is driving the car to the mall.
- Her is driving the car to the mall.
Aha! The first one is correct.
Now remember that we compared who/whom to other pronouns just a minute ago: she/her = who/whom. Here’s the sentence again:
- She/who is driving the car to the mall?
- Her/whom is driving the car to the mall?
And there’s your answer: Who is driving the car to the mall?
Object of a verb
Let’s look at some more who or whom examples.
- Do you believe Tom?
If you’re not sure whether I trust Tom (or anyone else), you’d ask me. Should you use “who” or “whom”?
A grammarian would point out that “Tom” is the object of the verb “believe.” But we can just as easily use the same substitution strategy to find the answer with our who or whom checker.
- Do you believe he/who?
- Do you believe him/whom?
Once again, the answer is clear: Do you believe him? Because who and whom often begin sentences when they serve as interrogative pronouns, however, we’ll have to revise the question format to ask it correctly.
- Whom do you believe?
Object of a preposition
Whom is also used when a noun (or noun phrase, below) is the object of a preposition.
- Did the teacher tell you to speak to the school board?
Maybe she did; maybe she didn’t. Should you use “who” or “whom” to find out? Our grammarian would note that “the school board” is the object of the preposition “to.” We will revert to our substitution scheme and find the answer that way.
- Did the teacher tell you to speak to they/who?
- Did the teacher tell you to speak to them/whom?
There it is: Did the teacher tell you to speak to them? As before, we’ll invert the question to use “whom,” and bring the preposition along so it’s not left dangling at the end of the sentence.
- To whom did the teacher tell you to speak?
We make this adjustment in other types of sentences as well.
- I work with these people.
We can see that “these people” is the object of the preposition “with.” But we can also substitute third-person plural pronouns and see which work best.
- I work with they/who.
- I work with them/whom.
Since the second sentence is correct, you’d replace “several people” with “whom” in this sentence.
- These are the people whom I work with.
That’s better, but still not quite right. As with our question about the school board, we should rearrange syntax to avoid leaving the preposition “with” at the end of the sentence.
- These are the people with whom I work.
Formal vs. informal
Part of the problem with who and whom is that we don’t write the way we speak. While there may be some people who would say “To whom am I speaking?” (I’m looking at you, Mr./Ms. Grammarian), most of us would say “Who am I speaking to?” instead. This means we have to think a bit harder when we communicate in a formal way. But now that you know how to use these pronouns, you’ll be writing like a grammarian in no time. And that’s a good thing.
For more information
If you’d like to delve more deeply into the intricacies of grammar, I recommend the sources cited in this post. Specific topics are linked above; the main site URLs are listed in the references below.
- Cambridge Dictionary. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar
- Grammar.com. www.grammar.com
- Grammar Revolution. english-grammar-revolution.com
- Grammarly. www.grammarly.com/blog
What are your thoughts about using who or whom? Share it in the comments below!
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